The year is 1952. The town is Jupiter, Florida. The intro credits are reminiscent of The Brothers Quay. And this is Ryan Murphy’s twisted vision of Norman Rockwell’s idealized America.
American Horror Story: Freak Show is here, and from the outset it’s made clear that, as always, the setting is going to play as big a part in the story as the characters. We open on the idyllic image of the old time milkman, stiff white uniform and all, as he makes his morning deliveries. He’s chipper as can be, but he notices something awry at the next stop on his route: full milk bottles on the porch. He investigates, finds a corpse and a set dinner table, and then discovers the wounded, two-headed body of Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson). B&D are rushed to the hospital, and, from there, things move quickly.
Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), who runs the failing freak show carnival on the outskirts of town, sniffs out the oddity hiding at the hospital, thanks to tales of murder in the paper and a cop at B&D’s doorway. She talks Penny the Candy Striper (Grace Gummer, sadly, always in the tiniest of roles) into visiting a “closet of curiosities,” which we later find out is just the carnival — where Penny is then drugged and, later, forced to watch video of her drugged self basking in carnival depravity.
The point of this? Elsa dons Penny’s candy striper uniform and, over the course of a few days, sweet talks B&D into running away from the hospital to join her freak show, appealing to Bette’s sense of wonder at the world and Dot’s basest survival instincts. When the two arrive, their fellow freaks welcome them with half-open arms, wary of newcomers but aware of their need for an addition to the cast. And there’s quite the cast, though most are relegated to sideshow-status for now.
Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) is a man with a physical deformity that has gifted him with two claw-like hands. His role in the freak show is not yet clear — he seems to be concerned with protecting everyone — but we do see that a room full of women are paying money for him to… use his claws on them.
Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) is an Appalachian bearded woman who owes Elsa everything, apparently, though we don’t know much about where she comes from or how she got to Florida. She is the show’s emcee and also, in a scene wonderfully reminiscent of Misery, acts as B&D’s caretaker.
We’ve also got Legless Suzy, Paul the Illustrated Seal, Amazon Eve, and more, who, for now, are all mostly in the background, hovering helpfully around Jimmy Darling as he takes care of business on the grounds of the carnival. But, oddly enough, much of the action in “Monsters Among Us” takes place away from the tents the freaks call home.
It goes without saying that in AHS there’s going to be plenty of “meanwhile…” happening because each season consists of episodes only minutely related to one another, with the last few episodes of each year pulling double duty to make sense of the whole thing that preceded them. Freak Show looks to be no different, as a surprising amount of this episode was devoted to Twisty the Clown, perhaps the most fucked-up looking serial killer we’ve ever seen on TV — network, cable, or otherwise.
We first see him all-too-clearly as he is stabbing a kid to death with shears as the kid’s date looks on, terrified. She tries to run, but in classic horror movie move fashion, trips over nothing. When Twisty catches her, she’s taken back to his van-slash-home, where she’s held captive along with a little boy in a coonskin cap. Who knows how long he’s been there, and who knows what will happen with this storyline. Twisty is all over this episode, with stories of his murders printed in the headlines and floating from the radios in the hospital as he stalks the grounds of the carnival toward episode’s end.
And then (there’s always “and then” in AHS, too) we have Dandy (Finn Wittrock) and Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy), a son-and-mother duo we see only briefly. Gloria is above all of it, and Conroy once again plays a foil to Lange, tossing insults with such nonchalance that you’d think she was slipping into a coma. The two Motts are obsessed with freaks, and also rich enough to offer $15,000 for B&D after seeing the freak show perform. And, oh, what a spell-binding, fourth-wall breaking performance it was.
Up to this point in the episode, there had been nothing to suggest that Ryan Murphy and co. were going to betray the 1950s setting of the show. The costuming (nurses, policemen, milkman, a scene in a quintessential diner) is spot on, the music is perfect, and even the quality of the picture has a shiny, vaseline-smeared sheen to it. But here, the show does what AHS always does, and does it well: It says “Fuck you” to any expectations that may have appeared over the first fifty minutes of the show, and reminds us all that the reason AHS is so fun to watch — implausible mess that it is — is because of its willingness to go anywhere and everywhere, whether or not the story, characters, or setting calls for it. Everything is allowed. This series is the freak show of television, inviting the most demented ideas to come and live happily together, just as Elsa’s freak show has manifested into a family of sorts, a place of refuge for those who otherwise thought refuge impossible.
And it is a family, even if more in line with the Mansons than the Johnsons. They prove it when they kill a cop who has come to arrest B&D for the murder of their own mother. They prove it again, later, when they rally around said cop’s dead body and declare an end to the age of being treated like shit. But will they be able to prove it again in the face of Twisty the Clown? Who knows. Hell, he might even turn into an alien in a few weeks, or he might just disappear from the show altogether.
But again, the show does something altogether unexpected, ending not on a cliffhanger of a twist, but instead on a perfectly stylized long take of Elsa as she reveals her deformity to us in a quiet moment that manages to successfully drown out the madness before it and remind us — just as I’m sure it was intended to do — that this show is about people, people. For now, at least.